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Sinatra: The Chairman

Sinatra: The Chairman

5.0 1
by James Kaplan

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Just in time for the Chairman’s centennial, the endlessly absorbing sequel to James Kaplan’s bestselling Frank: The Voice—which completes the definitive biography that Frank Sinatra, justly termed the “Entertainer of the Century,” deserves and requires. Like Peter Guralnick on Elvis, Kaplan goes behind the legend to give us


Just in time for the Chairman’s centennial, the endlessly absorbing sequel to James Kaplan’s bestselling Frank: The Voice—which completes the definitive biography that Frank Sinatra, justly termed the “Entertainer of the Century,” deserves and requires. Like Peter Guralnick on Elvis, Kaplan goes behind the legend to give us the man in full, in his many guises and aspects: peerless singer, (sometimes) accomplished actor, business mogul, tireless lover, and associate of the powerful and infamous.
     In 2010’s Frank: The Voice, James Kaplan, in rich, distinctive, compulsively readable prose, told the story of Frank Sinatra’s meteoric rise to fame, subsequent failures, and reinvention as a star of live performance and screen. The story of “Ol’ Blue Eyes” continues with Sinatra: The Chairman, picking up the day after he claimed his Academy Award in 1954 and had reestablished himself as the top recording artist. Sinatra’s life post-Oscar was astonishing in scope and achievement and, occasionally, scandal, including immortal recordings almost too numerous to count, affairs ditto, many memorable films (and more than a few stinkers), Rat Pack hijinks that mesmerized the world with their air of masculine privilege, and an intimate involvement at the intersection of politics and organized crime that continues to shock and astound with its hubris. James Kaplan has orchestrated the wildly disparate aspects of Frank Sinatra’s life and character into an American epic—a towering achievement in biography of a stature befitting its subject.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 09/21/2015
The great singer-actor contains multitudes in this vast, engrossing biography of Frank Sinatra’s mature years. Completing his bestselling Frank: The Voice, Kaplan follows the 17-year span from Sinatra’s Oscar-winning role in 1954’s From Here to Eternity to his (first) retirement in 1971, a period when he was a commanding Hollywood star and the acknowledged master of the American songbook. Kaplan delves with gusto into Sinatra’s seething contradictions: swagger and insecurity; sensitivity and callousness; deep loneliness amid a perpetual throng of cronies; an omnivorous sexual appetite that encompassed polar opposites Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow; lordly generosity combined with tyrannical control and a violent compulsion to push people around (most memorably when, while dressed as an Native American woman at a benefit event, he got in a shoving match with a cowboy-costumed John Wayne and then, to work off his anger, had a bodyguard beat up a parking attendant). Kaplan’s sympathetic but unflinching narrative revels in the entertainer’s scandalous private life while offering rapt, insightful appreciations of his sublime recording and stage performances. It situates him and his Rat Pack at the Vegas headquarters of a postwar American culture that yoked mobsters and prostitutes to Kennedys and other luminaries. His Sinatra is often appalling, sometimes inspiring, and always a fascinating icon of an energetic, resonant, yet doomed style of masculinity. Photos. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Sinatra: The Chairman:

"Fifty pages from the end of Sinatra: The Chairman, the second and concluding volume of James Kaplan’s magisterial biography of Frank Sinatra, I guarantee you’ll begin to weep. Not because you’ve finished a 900-plus-page book (though you will feel relief), or because Kaplan so persistently details the ugly truth about Sinatra... No, you will weep over the death of a massive and unforgettable talent whose style of living helped define post-war America, and you will weep for an America that no longer exists, whether you lived during those years or just yearn for their return."
—Sibbie O'Sullivan, The Washington Post

"Kaplan's second volume is a hand-stitched tapestry with many, many recurring motifs... The remarkable thing is that Sinatra’s career is such a compelling transit of the 20th century in American entertainment and politics—and an early and prophetic blending of the two—that the endless Kaplan book is endlessly engaging. His Sinatra is a magnificent monster—imperious and callow, thuggish and tender, an exquisitely lonely man forever surrounded by a posse of hangers-on."
—Edward Kosner, Wall Street Journal

"Do not be deterred by the book’s heft. Sinatra: The Chairman is a riveting read—a juicy, painstakingly researched, excitingly written examination of a brilliant musician, an uneven and temperamental actor, and a charming, erratic, deeply flawed man."
Julia M. Klein, The Boston Globe

“Definitive, and irresistibly engrossing…Kaplan is terrific dissecting Sinatra and the mob. His elucidation of Sinatra’s contribution to the shadowy Kennedy presidential campaign is exemplary. He is at his best reporting 'the less than sublime goings-on,' as he terms them, that “always in Frank’s life…bracketed sublime music.”
—Barry Singer, USA Today

"The degree to which that brutality is from reality and not just comic mythology in Vegas lounges can be read about in full glorious technicolor detail in one of the huge, and hugely compelling, books of 2015, Sinatra: The Chairman, the second volume of James Kaplan’s wildly readable doorstop biography that began with the near-definitive Frank: The Voice.”
—Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News

"Hugely readable, vastly entertaining, a page-turner.”
—Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

"I think James Kaplan's two volume set is the definitive word on Frank Sinatra, as definitive as any biography of any public figure can be. It's jammed with something juicy on almost every page. It has been written with integrity and affection. It neither sugar coats or demonizes. It presents what all stars are—ordinary mortals with ordinary cares, writ large by fame, and in Sinatra's case, a peerless talent. Sinatra concocted a towering life on the American landscape."
—Liz Smith

"Such a book stands or falls on its author's storytelling ability. In that regard, Kaplan does admirably, with a sense of momentum and a fair, balanced tone."
—James Gavin, Newsday

“In the first volume of his Sinatra biography…James Kaplan provided a gripping, novelistic account of the singer’s roots and the development of his craft, deftly mapping his assimilation of early influences and his discovery of his own voice. “Sinatra: The Chairman,” the concluding volume to that biography, does a similarly nimble job of tracing the singer’s continued rise to international fame, and credibly explicates the alchemy behind the singer’s collaboration with Nelson Riddle and their amazing achievement during the Capitol Records years with masterpieces like “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely” and “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Engaging to the point of addiction, The Chairman provides a spirited romp through the prime times of Sinatraland and the September of his years. It also reminds us why Kaplan grew enchanted enough with Sinatra to spend 10 years writing about him… But oh, that voice. It made up for so much. It cut through the clutter of everything else. Before Sinatra, there was really no such thing as a standard. Before Sinatra, you’d be hard-pressed to associate the Great American Songbook with any particular singer. Such was his impact. So bring on the tributes. And start with The Chairman.”
—Chris Vognar, The Dallas Morning News

“The book is detailed enough about Sinatra’s music, movies and complicated personal life to satisfy completists, but Kaplan always has his eye on the big picture.”
—Lloyd SachsDetroit News

“Kaplan’s Frank came out in 2010—do we need 900 more pages on Ol’ Blue Eyes? This intriguing bio, timed to his 100th birthday, will convince you we do.”
People Magazine

“If you ever wanted to know exactly what Frank Sinatra was doing on every single day of his life, Kaplan is your man. The Chairman is rich with fascinating detail, much of which I’d never heard…. When Kaplan describes Sinatra the singer, The Chairman soars: ‘a flawless legato, perfect diction, and graceful phrasing based on a total mastery of breath control.’”
—Allen Barra, The Daily Beast.com

“Scrupulous, entertainingly eye-opening…You’ll dig Kaplan’s highbrow down-low of Ol’ Blue Eyes…during his controversial and powerful reign in the 1950s and ‘60s.”
Elle Magazine

"...[R]emarkably insightful, gracefully, often eloquently, written history of popular music and celebrity culture in twentieth-century America—all viewed through the lens of an iconic singer and undervalued actor whose wildly contradictory personality and tempestuous personal life built the legend but detracted from the man’s genius as an artist.... As astute in his psychological analysis as in his music criticism, Kaplan makes sense of the singer’s insistence on taking way too many encores by noting Sinatra’s need forconstant movement: 'He was like a whole body case of restless leg syndrome.' That restlessness finally shook itself out, but, along the way, it drove a skinny kid from Hoboken to live a life that, as Kaplan concludes, 'touched almost every aspect of American culture in the twentieth century.' That’s a bigstatement, but this big book makes us believe it."
Booklist, starred review 

"The great singer-actor contains multitudes in this vast, engrossing biography of Frank Sinatra’s mature years... Kaplan’s sympathetic but unflinching narrative revels in the entertainer’s scandalous private life while offering rapt, insightful appreciations of his sublime recording and stage performances. It situates him and his Rat Pack at the Vegas headquarters of a postwar American culture that yoked mobsters and prostitutes to Kennedys and other luminaries. His Sinatra is often appalling, sometimes inspiring, and always a fascinating icon of an energetic, resonant, yet doomed style of masculinity."
Publishers Weekly, starred review 

"The meatiness of the material justifies the length of the author's second (and concluding) volume of his biography of Frank Sinatra (1915-1998). Just as his subject matured into a far more compelling artist than the one who had elicited squeals from bobby-soxers, the follow-up to Kaplan's Frank: The Voice (2010) is far more substantial than that initial volume.... An appropriately big book for an oversized artistic presence."
Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Library Journal
Following Frank: The Voice, this second volume of Kaplan's extensive biography picks up in 1954 after Frank Sinatra won his career-reviving Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1953's From Here to Eternity. Kaplan's writing is informative yet conversational and reveals Sinatra's personality by his reactions to people as wide-ranging as Jack Kennedy, Sam Giancana, Ava Gardner, Axel Stordhal, and the many women who filled his life. Sinatra was a man of contradictions, balancing an external arrogance with barely contained insecurity and emotional missteps. Kaplan's prose neither condemns nor praises his subject. The only criticism is that this 1,000-page book devotes few pages to the final 28 years of the singer's life. Despite his "retirement" in 1971, Sinatra appeared on stage and screen extensively between 1973 and his death in 1998. VERDICT This volume completes an impressive biography of Sinatra that currently stands as the most thorough examination of his life. For all libraries and fans of Sinatra. [See Prepub Alert, 4/6/15.]—Peter Thornell, Hingham P.L., MA
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2015-09-15
The meatiness of the material justifies the length of the author's second (and concluding) volume of his biography of Frank Sinatra (1915-1998). Just as his subject matured into a far more compelling artist than the one who had elicited squeals from bobby-soxers, the follow-up to Kaplan's Frank: The Voice (2010) is far more substantial than that initial volume. Where the biographer subjected the early Sinatra to plenty of psychobabble—lots of mommy issues—and purple prose (particularly steamy with Ava Gardner), the story that begins with his mid-1950s resurgence sustains its own narrative momentum with the author generally staying out of the way. The allure of Gardner remains, long after their short-lived marriage, but Sinatra has grown in accomplishment (and reader interest) as a recording artist, an actor, a Nevada tycoon, a record-label mogul, and a controversial public figure. His pals at the time included future president John F. Kennedy and Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana—as well as the notorious Judith Campbell Exner, who was involved with all three—and Kaplan nimbly imagines the negotiations of power and influence, as Kennedy ultimately froze Sinatra out and Giancana threatened his life. The author explores the ambivalence of Sinatra's relationships with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and his propensity toward both public boorishness and private benevolence, and he illuminates his "astonishingly intimate singing, created in the one place where Frank Sinatra was capable of creating intimacy." Kaplan still displays pulpy flashes, in his evocation of how Sinatra and Mia Farrow "began to explore the strange new territory of each other" and "were a strange hybrid, this May-September pair, holding hands over a chasm, trying to stay together in spite of everything." Refusing to take sides between Sinatra's widow and his progeny, Kaplan treats the final years of Sinatra's life in comparatively perfunctory fashion. But most of the rest provides a riveting story, strong enough to stand on its own without a lot of authorial embellishment. An appropriately big book for an oversized artistic presence.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Act One
The Whirlwind

Eleven days after winning the Oscar for From Here to Eternity, Frank Sinatra sat down and typed a note to a friend, clearly in response to a congratulatory letter or telegram. The note, on Paramount Pictures stationery and in Frank’s customary, too-impatient-to-press-the-shift-key style, began,
april 5, 1954
dear lew—
my paisan mr sinatra is still on cloud nine and the bum refuses to come down…
That bum—“mr sinatra”—was so thrilled, the note continued (still all lowercase, still in the third person), that he was “ridiculous.” And then, after a final thanks to the recipient, came the signature: “maggio.”
It’s a charming letter and a fascinating one. Throughout his life, Sinatra employed secretaries who answered his voluminous mail, often signing his name themselves. From time to time, though, when the spirit moved him, he penned or typed his own missives, and the letters are him, revealing his restless intellect, his sense of humor (always more spontaneous in personal circumstances than onstage), even a literary sensibility. And why not? As a great singer, he was a great storyteller; why should that faculty switch off when he was away from a microphone? In this note, he is writing in character, as PFC Angelo Maggio, the role that won him that Academy Award, and the voice is perfect: “the bum refuses”; “he’s so thrilled he is ridiculous.” From the moment he’d first picked up James Jones’s blockbuster novel, Sinatra had completely identified with Maggio, the feisty little private from Brooklyn who speaks in a kind of Damon Runyon–ese. He had campaigned, hard, for the movie role by barraging the filmmakers—Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn; producer Buddy Adler; director Fred Zinnemann; screenwriter Daniel Taradash—with telegrams touting his perfect suitability for the part, and he had signed every wire just as he’d signed this note: “Maggio.”
Frank Sinatra had identified so powerfully with the character not only because Angelo Maggio was a skinny, streetwise Italian-American from Brooklyn—like Sinatra’s native Hoboken, close geographically to Manhattan but oh so far away—but also because Maggio was one of the world’s downtrodden, a little man who drank to ease his sorrows and spoke truth to power with wisecracks. When Sinatra first read From Here to Eternity in late 1951, he was feeling considerably downtrodden himself. His records were no longer selling; he was having vocal and financial problems; the IRS was after him. He had become infamous, pilloried in newspapers across the United States, after leaving his wife and three children for Ava Gardner. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had recently terminated his movie contract, and he would soon also be dumped by Columbia Records, as well as by his talent agency, the Music Corporation of America.
“He’s a dead man,” the talent agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar declared in 1952. “Even Jesus couldn’t get resurrected in this town.” Maybe not, but Frank Sinatra could. Literally overnight—after the Academy Awards ceremony on March 25, 1954—Sinatra brought off the greatest comeback in show-business history. And he had done it all in Hollywood, a ruthlessly Darwinian company town that reviles losers but has the sappiest of soft spots for a happy ending. His Oscar underlined the fact that he was also a freshly viable recording artist with a new contract at Capitol Records, where he and a brilliant young arranger named Nelson Riddle had begun creating the string of groundbreaking recordings that would revolutionize popular music in the 1950s.
And quite suddenly that spring, without a shred of embarrassment about its fickleness, the entire entertainment industry began throwing itself at his feet. “The whole world is changing for Frank Sinatra,” Louella Parsons wrote in her syndicated column of April 19. “Today he has so many jobs offered him he can pick and choose.”
Parsons was talking about movies, although television, radio, and nightclubs were also calling. Among the film possibilities offered to Sinatra: a supporting part alongside the hot-as-a-pistol young Robert Mitchum in the medical melodrama Not as a Stranger; the second lead in a Warner Bros. remake of Four Daughters, the picture that had catapulted John Garfield to fame; a co-starring role alongside Marilyn Monroe in the 20th Century Fox musical Pink Tights, even though Monroe soon dropped out when she heard how much more the studio was offering Sinatra than her. And, lo and behold, MGM—where Louis B. Mayer had personally fired Sinatra in 1950 after he made an impolitic joke about Mayer’s mistress (and where Mayer himself was now history)—wanted him back, for the long-discussed St. Louis Woman, alongside Ava Gardner.
This was distinctly problematic for several reasons. For one thing, Gardner, who’d been outraged that Metro had dubbed a professional singer’s voice over hers in Show Boat, was determined never to make another musical. For another, she had come to hate Hollywood with a passion. She was living as an expatriate, cohabiting in Spain with the charismatic and brilliant bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín, the darkly handsome torero whose rivalry with his brother-in-law Antonio Ordóñez would later inspire Ernest Hemingway’s long Life magazine piece The Dangerous Summer. Most important of all, however, she was about to file for divorce from Frank.

While the Hollywood of 1954 bore some similarities to today’s entertainment capital, it was altogether a sleepier, more rustic town. Not a more virtuous one by any means, but more tightly bounded. The studios still held sway; their publicity departments controlled access to stars and information about them, even when it came to police matters. There was a certain code of conduct for the press and other prying outsiders when it came to celebrities.
It is, for example, impossible to imagine any major star today living, as Sinatra did in the spring of that year, in a garden apartment, albeit such a glamorous one as Frank’s five-room bachelor pad in a redbrick complex at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Beverly Glen. A decade before, when he had first come to Hollywood, he had resided in a pink-walled stucco mansion in Toluca Lake. It was a mark of both his change of fortunes and his maturity (not to mention the change of times) that Sinatra no longer had to ward off hordes of bobby-soxers, or hordes of any kind. In the spring of 1954, he was approaching thirty-nine—lean and balding, not settled by any means (his defiant hedonism and overweening ego would guard against such a fate for a very long time), but grown up, in his own particular way. His oaken baritone on the Capitol recordings, rich with sad knowledge—or, on up-tempo numbers, with swaggering authority—was a sea change from the tender Voice that had soothed America through the war.
But the secret was that he was still yearning. (He would always yearn, even after he had gained all the world had to offer.) He had spent the previous Christmas and New Year’s in Rome, where Gardner was shooting Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa, desperately trying to hold on to her, even as she was edging away, already in love with the bullfighter. Ava loved Frank too—she always would—but her passion for him had ebbed, diminished in good part by his plummet from success, which had coincided with her own rise to stardom. He had drained her scant reserves of patience and sympathy. Unknown to her, just before she left for Europe the previous November, he had made a serious suicide attempt, cutting his left wrist in the New York apartment of his close friend the songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen: he would have bled out had Van Heusen not returned and found him.
And Ava smelled his desperation and hated it even as she loved him. She was heedless and restless and easily bored, and she was in love with another man.
The gossip columnists (Sinatra read them as closely as any fan) cobbled up a sweet fantasy: Gardner would come to the Oscars that March—she herself was up for Best Actress, for Mogambo—and the couple would reunite. But she stayed with her lover in Spain.
If Frank himself had harbored any fantasy that his renewed fame would bring her back, he was rudely disappointed.
“One night we went to Frank’s for a dinner party,” recalled the lyricist and screenwriter Betty Comden, “and we saw that one of the rooms was filled with pictures of Ava, and around the pictures were lit candles. It was like the altar of a little church.”
Yet another night, Gardner’s biographer Lee Server writes, Swifty Lazar, who lived in the same apartment complex as Sinatra, came home late and saw that Frank’s door was open.
Wondering if there was a problem, he stuck his head through the doorway and saw Sinatra by himself, evidently very drunk, slumped in an armchair, holding a gun. Cautiously Lazar stepped inside and as he did he saw that Sinatra was aiming his gun—an air gun, it turned out to be—at three large portrait images of Ava he had propped up on the floor. The three faces of Ava were full of pellet holes where Sinatra had been shooting at them—all night long, as it appeared.
If Gardner had been Delilah to Frank’s Samson while they were together, she would be his muse for years after they broke up—specifically and crucially, the great Capitol years. “Ava taught him how to sing a torch song,” Nelson Riddle famously said. “She taught him the hard way.” On May 13, 1954, Sinatra—with Riddle conducting a twenty-nine-piece orchestra—recorded three songs that could have been addressed directly to his wandering wife: “The Gal That Got Away,” “Half as Lovely (Twice as True),” and “It Worries Me.” On the last, Frank sang,
Just what did I do—was I mean to you?
Taken as autobiography (which to some extent it must be), the lyric may look disingenuous—of course he had been not just mean but brutal to her, and she to him, on innumerable occasions. But listened to, the line, sung with exquisite tenderness, is meltingly lovely. In fact, Frank in his new middle period was every bit the ballad singer that Frankie of the Columbia years had been—and then some. He had lived more, suffered more.

On June 12, 1954, Ava Gardner arrived in Lake Tahoe to begin the six-week Nevada residence required for her divorce from Frank Sinatra. Las Vegas, where she had sojourned while splitting from her first husband, Mickey Rooney, was out; Frank was in town, playing the Sands, and Vegas was a small place in those days. (And, extraordinarily enough, both Rooney and Gardner’s second husband, Artie Shaw, were also appearing at casinos along the Strip: a constellation of exes.)
While in Tahoe, Ava and her maid, Reenie Jordan, stayed in a lakefront house provided by her inveterate suitor, the epically weird, immensely wealthy oil and aviation magnate Howard Hughes. Hughes, a control freak to the nth degree and a paranoiac master of intrigue, especially when it came to affairs of the heart, had a habit of installing girlfriends—both current and prospective—in rented houses, sometimes in proximity to each other, the better to monitor their comings and goings. For years, he had been trying to reel in Gardner, to bed or to wed, without success. He showered her with expensive gifts, jewels and fur coats and convertibles; she accepted his presents and laughed in his face.
Now he sensed an opening. Her marriage was ending; perhaps she needed a shoulder to cry on. But the emotionally tone-deaf Hughes needed data to press his campaign. He had the rented house bugged and retained a fancy Washington, D.C., investigator named Robert Maheu to surveil the premises while Ava was in residence.
Maheu, whose specialty was high-level cloak-and-dagger work (in later years, he would be intimately involved in a CIA-backed plot to assassinate Fidel Castro), was understandably loath to make a long trip for what was plainly a jealous-boyfriend job. He subcontracted the work to a local private detective, who quickly ascertained that Hughes’s competition was Ava’s never-say-die, soon-to-be ex.
One afternoon that summer, Frank showed up at the Tahoe house, no doubt with reconciliation in mind, and managed to persuade Ava to take a boat ride with him. Unwisely, the local detective elected to follow them in another boat. Sinatra quickly spotted him and gave furious chase; the detective just managed to make it back to shore and hightail it into the woods. Any hint of romance thoroughly spoiled, Frank left Tahoe without swaying Ava.
Romantic history: first as tragedy, then as farce.
At the end of July, she failed to show up for her court date for the divorce. She had asked him to repay the not inconsiderable sums she’d lent him when he was down-and-out; he had bridled at the request. They were at an impasse: still legally married, though apart. He would never get her out of his system, nor would she ever truly get him out of hers.

Meet the Author

JAMES KAPLAN’s essays, stories, reviews, and profiles have appeared in numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and New York. His novels include Pearl’s Progress and Two Guys from Verona, a New York Times Notable Book for 1998. His nonfiction works include The Airport, You Cannot Be Serious (co-authored with John McEnroe), Dean & Me: A Love Story (with Jerry Lewis), and the first volume of his definitive biography of Frank Sinatra, Frank: The Voice. He lives in Westchester, New York, with his wife and three sons.

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Sinatra: The Chairman 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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